The 15 commonest mistakes in CVs


A little research for a project has led me to find out, from a number of people using CVs, what their key bug-bears are with those they receive. These are primarily recruiters or employers. There was some remarkable consistency among their answers. This note is mainly aimed at the UK, although most of what is said applies around the world. So the tips and hints that feature in most recruiters’ wish-list are:

  1. Always remember that CVs are marketing documents – not an engineering specification. They are your only opportunity to present yourself in the best possible light. A recruiter expects you to put a positive spin on things. Of course, material information should be included, and you shouldn’t lie, but there’s no need to bare yourself body and soul in the CV.
  2. Make sure that the CV is focused on the role you are going for – not on you and not too generic. Some people write their CV as if it is their autobiography, others prepare one generic CV for the year and then steadfastly refuse to change it to suit the role they are hoping to secure. Think through the role, and what the prospective employer needs to read to feel confident that you are worth seeing, then write the CV accordingly.
  3. Bad CVs are lists of duties instead of accomplishments and results. Everyone who has done the same job as you will have performed more or less the same duties. The recruiter generally knows these anyway. A list of these doesn’t say anything about what makes you special. Give examples of specific accomplishments. Better still describe the tangible result to the organisation. Beware of things that were an achievement, given the politics of the organisation, but sound shallow to anyone outside.
  4. Consider the readers’ interests/needs – present information in that order. The classic example of this is the CV that lists employment history in chronological order, showing dates, company name, location, job title. The recruiter is more interested in current job title, who you are working for, how long for and possible where. They may be interested in the same detail for the last five years or so.
  5. Never include excessive or extraneous detail. In an initial recruitment process, your CV will probably be looked at for between 10 and 20 seconds. Pick up a newspaper and scan it for ten seconds – see how much you can take in. Get someone else to do the same with the first page of your CV. If you’ve worked for blue chip companies there’s no need to say what they do. If you’ve worked for SMEs that no-one has heard of, then focus on your job and be prepared to answer the six honest serving men questions about the company in an interview.
  6. Always put the important information at the front. I once saw a Finance Director’s CV where it was only on the bottom of the second page that he mentioned that he was a chartered accountant. Be VERY careful though, not to assume that what is important to you is also important to the recruiter. I have also seen two established Chief Executives rejected for jobs because they mentioned their PhDs not once but three times on the first page.
  7. A CV that is visually appealing, with plenty of white space and balanced fonts etc, indicates a candidate who has an awareness of the importance of design, image and clarity of thinking. CVs that spread to the edge of the paper, use tiny fonts, and are based on the free template that comes with Microsoft Word, indicate a couldn’t care less attitude.
  8. Good CVs have a ‘profile’ at the top and keywords embedded in them. The profile is a chance for you to reiterate why you are the right person for the job or for them to want to know. It needs to be customised for almost every use of the CV. If sending one to an agency, you will make it clear that you are a high achiever, safe pair of hands, with good social skills and no embarrassing habits – in other words someone they won’t be ashamed to put forward to their clients. If sending one for a specific job then you obviously need to persuade the reader that you’re the best possible candidate. This is where research is important – some firms recruit for a position, some have grand ideas about only recruiting people who will make potential MDs and so on. Mismatching the profile to the culture is a no-no!
  9. If your CV is not digitally-friendly then you don’t stand much chance in a wide market. Many professional recruiters scan CVs using commercially available software. Some of this is quite sophisticated, even using semantic search technologies, but others are pretty basic. Either way, you need to make sure that your CV contains all the keywords that someone might use and ideally in a suitable proportion. A simple way to begin is to subject your CV to a ‘tag cloud’ program (such as and check that the cloud matches the image you wish to project.
  10. Senior level recruiters generally don’t respect CVs that contain references. There are some circumstances where it is logical to include them, but for senior roles in specialist niches it is a bad idea. Asking someone to give a reference is an honour to them, and a privilege to you. You should never abuse them. Always consider who is the best person to give a reference to a particular company, for a particular job, in a particular industry and so on, and IF YOU MUST then include them in a covering letter not the CV. Imagine the stupidity of telling a friend that you’re hoping to get an interview with XYZ and for them to say, “Oh, I know the Chief Executive there really well, I’d be delighted to give you a reference if you’d like one.” only to have to say, “I’ve already given them my references!” Recruiters will ask for references after they have decided to either short-list, interview or even appoint you. There are a few organisations who insist on sending you a generic application form, which asks for references. You need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to say, “I will be pleased to supply later” or to give some there and then.
  11. Keep it down to TWO PAGES (unless you are famous and providing a resume for publication in which case it is ONE PAGE). A CV that goes beyond two pages is becoming an engineering specification or a biography. If you have REALLY achieved THAT much then people will know you anyway. If you aren’t well known and still need to go to more than three then you are giving far too much detail. Keep in mind that most CVs will only be looked at for ten seconds or so. The second page will only get a cursory examination to see if there’s something visually significant there. I often say to people that they should look at the estate agent’s brochure for a house – most people decide to visit on the basis of that little information.
  12. Use the personal interests line to show you are a rounded, interesting, and safe person to have around. Some recruiters see this as a complete waste of time. Others like to use it to decide whether you are the kind of person they would like to share an office with. The old formula was to have interests that demonstrate an intellectual, creative, sociable and altruistic side to the person. A few HR people won’t even read a CV that doesn’t have these. Be credible, and expect to be asked about the interests. Don’t put SO much information in that people think you are obsessive about it or that it will compete too much with your passion for work! Equally don’t put down glib items – I once had someone who put down ‘church’ as an interest – they stumbled when asked which one and who the vicar was?! If your only involvement in ‘downhill skiing’ is a once a year holiday on the beginners’ slopes you are going to look pretty daft when the MD is a member of the Alpine Club.
  13. Get a professional email address and use it! It costs less than £10 a year to have a personal domain name and to set it up to send and receive email. If you really must use a web-mail (eg gmail) or ISP-provided solution (eg btinternet) then PLEASE choose something professional as your user-name. I kid you not, I have seen “wifeandtwokidstofeed”, “outofworkbanker”, “greatwhitesexyblond”, “twoteenstaxi” and “sweetsuzie69″ as well as a few other choice examples on CVs before now.
  14. SPELL CHECK. One in two CVs that I encounter has a typo in the first page. Yes, 50%. At best, it shows you are lazy. It certainly shows that you lack attention to detail. It could suggest that you are illiterate. It might mean that you are dyslexic. It looks as though your friends are no better. Every modern word processor has a spelling and grammar checker. Recruiters collect examples of these errors. First pass – use the spelling and grammar checker (catches ‘publicrelations’). Second pass – use your brain to spot words that the checker has accepted but your brain tells you are wrong (stops ‘public relation’). Third pass – ask a friend (prevents ‘pubic relations’).
  15. At the senior level, NEVER, EVER, list your skills. While, in theory, this might be useful for raw graduates and others who have just entered the workplace, for most people it is likely to seem childish. At senior levels, you are being recruited for your experience, network and attitudes. Listing skills does nothing to convey these. Almost any skill listed provides an opportunity for the recruitment process to show you’re wrong. Most serious skills at the senior level are capable of being studied to a very high level, so beware of claiming a skill and meeting a recruiter who wrote a book, lectures at business school, has his own TV series etc in that particular skill. You should demonstrate your skills through the results of your achievements, and leave lists to young people with no experience.

Best wishes

Graham Wilson

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.